Danny White is one of the most coveted athletic directors in the country. All that stuff about winning the "national championship" at UCF in 2017? Every AD in the United States was jealous that White proclaimed it, had a parade to celebrate it and hung a banner to declare it.
Never mind that a 13-0 season for a Group of Five program under Scott Frost that year got the Knights a No. 12 College Football Playoff and a berth in the Peach Bowl. White made it more about the players who achieved it that than about himself. It also showed an out-of-the-box innovator was probably punching below his weight.
White was destined for a Power Five job at the tender age of 40. The surprise is that it was with Tennessee where White will oversee a football program about to go on probation. White's name has been connected with openings at USC, Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn and Kansas. In fact, it had come up for just about every Power Five opening of substance.
Why Tennessee, and why now?
"What makes this one different is the opportunity to build," White said Friday at his introductory press conference. "… I'm not a placeholder kind of leader. If there's not an opportunity to build and fight for something, I'll be bored to tears."
It could be that Tennessee was so desperate and White was so available that this was the right person at the right time. It didn't hurt that Tennessee maybe overpaid, throwing $1.8 million in salary his way. That would easily make him one of the top 10 ADs in terms of annual compensation.
"I don't think it was money," said Tom McMillen, CEO of Lead1, the FBS athletic director organization. "I think it was a situation he had done what he could do [at UCF]."
White indeed had reached his ceiling with the Knights. The College Football Playoff isn't going to expand anytime soon.
White certainly won the press conference Friday. Now he has to hire the right guy to win games. His hiring background is excellent with White having brought in Frost and then Josh Heupel at UCF.
"I hope I win the press conference today," White said. "You guys are going to tell me that today or tomorrow. We're not going to try to win the press conference … by making a decision we don't feel about in the short and long term. I hate to lose. I imagine our fans hate to lose maybe as much as I do. I want the same things they want. … I guess they're asking for my trust, so they have an AD who works his tail off."
What's at stake is only the long-term health of one of the most storied programs in the country. Tennessee hasn't won a championship in 22 years and lately has looked fairly incompetent even trying to compete.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt was summarily fired for cause and run out the door Tuesday. But AD Phil Fulmer -- who was in charge when the alleged cheating happened! -- was honored like a head of state.
Retirement? Make that a forced retirement. Tennessee couldn't even get a transition right.
White is an experienced athletic department leader, a trailblazer whose time had come. Proclaiming a national championship at a Group of Five program is one thing. Realistically competing for one at Tennessee is another.
"I'm on the other side of that conversation now," White said.
The last five head coaches who came to Knoxville, Tennessee, did so without previous Power Five head coaching experience. White is well aware of the Twitter cult that looms to judge whoever he hires.
"If you're upset or negative, text your buddy," White said. "Don't put it on social media."
That's easier said than done. The last time Tennessee was in this position, Greg Schiano's hiring leaked. Social media freaked out. There were protestors on street corners using a flimsy excuse to bolster their disapproval of Schiano as the next coach. Schiano's all but debunked that connection to the Jerry Sandusky scandal while at Penn State.
In the confusion, Fulmer pulled a power play that got then-AD John Currie fired. In Currie's place, Fulmer hired Pruitt. We know how that worked out. The prospect of White's football hire having to be vetted again by faceless internet trolls is scary.
"Social media can be great but it also can be painful," Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman said.
White's presence makes Tennessee more credible. He is the son of the legendary Kevin White, who announced his retirement this week as Duke's AD.
During Tennessee's whirlwind search process, Plowman noticed that White was ranked No. 4 nationally among ADs. It's easy to figure out the top three: Joe Castiglione at Oklahoma; Gene Smith at Ohio State and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. That's not bad company.
"When we called to see if he was interested, he said, 'I can win a national championship there. This has been the iconic brand. It might not be flourishing right now, but let's get that luster back,'" Plowman shared. "I told someone that was the drop-the-mic moment for me."
What's at stake is the long-term health of a fallen SEC power. White did not directly address the coaching search. He did not say whether Heupel would be candidate, only stating that "everyone is a candidate." White left open the possibility that interim coach Kevin Steele could finish 2021, succeed, and even win the permanent gig. That doesn't seem likely. You don't shell out almost $2 million for an AD to oversee the ascension of the interim coach.
What is more likely: White leaves Steele in place for 2021 while surveying the coaching landscape. Working his favor: Word is already out in the industry. The next coach likely is going to be overpaid because of the ongoing NCAA matter. Think of a six-year deal with additional year added to the contract for every year of probation. It's happened before.
Call it collateral damage to the budget just to revive the Vols.
"I've never worked at the big brand place until now," White said. "And I kind of like the fact the brand needs to be polished a little bit."
If White waits, who knows what names will be available after next season. Plowman may have begun mitigating the NCAA penalties in public by firing Pruitt and eight other staffers implicated in the alleged violations. The program is facing several Level I and Level II violations relating to recruiting.
"The last few coaching searches I've done at UCF there was that list of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, everybody debating who it should be," White said. "I'm not even paying attention to that list. If I am, I don't know why you even hire me. It's way more in depth than that.
"At some point it comes down to gut feeling."
There actually seems to be leadership at Tennessee at the moment. Now comes the hard part, competing for championships again in the SEC.